Long before a fleet reaches the end of its total technical life (TTL), which is normally around 25 years, a decision must be taken on how to revamp it
By now the unhappy state of the combat fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is well known. The number of fighter squadrons is plunging and new inductions are bound to take time, despite concerted efforts by the IAF and the government. What about the transport fleet? A cursory glance at the IAF’s transport fleet is more reassuring. Several new top-of-the-line platforms like the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III have been inducted in the last few years and more are on the way. True, the mainstay Ilyushin Il-76MD is overdue for refurbishment; but this too is being attended to. However, these aircraft are used exclusively for strategic roles and may be termed the “creamy layer”. Besides, the C-130J and C-17 aircraft together currently number just 15 out of a total transport fleet of around 250 aircraft.
The condition of the bulk of the fleet comprising Antonov An-32 and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-built HS 748M Avro turboprops, that shoulder the ubiquitous tactical tasks, is not heartening. Fleet serviceability is low, snags abound and minor incidents that could presage more serious accidents are fairly frequent. This was tragically illustrated by the disappearance of an IAF An-32 over the Bay of Bengal in July 2016, with 29 persons aboard. Since the aircraft was not fitted with underwater locator equipment, all attempts to locate the wreckage have proved futile. However, efforts to refurbish these tactical aircraft or to provide replacements are in hand.
THE WAY IN WHICH THE IAF’S STRATEGIC TRANSPORT FLEET WAS BROUGHT TO ITS CURRENT HAPPY STATE WITHIN A SHORT PERIOD IS EDIFYING
Fleet renewal should ideally be a regular process without peaks and troughs. The roots of the transport fleet’s current woes go back to the early 1980s when practically the entire ageing fleet had to be replaced. Today it seems incredible that as many as 110 An-32 turboprops were purchased between 1984 and 1991 and 17 Il-76 jets from 1985 onwards. About 40 HAL-built Dornier Do 228, used for training and light communication duties, were also inducted from 1987 onwards. Besides the latest acquisitions – the C-17 (2013 onwards) and the C-130J (2011 onwards) – only the HAL Avro was inducted much earlier (1964 onwards). Since so many aircraft were purchased during the 1980s they became due for upgrade or replacement at about the same time.
Long before a fleet reaches the end of its total technical life (TTL), which is normally around 25 years, a decision must be taken on how to revamp it. It could either be a mid-life upgrade to extend the TTL by about 15 years or procurement of an entirely new aircraft. Thereafter, a contract should be signed and upgrade or induction commenced well before the state of the fleet turns critical. In this way, there are fewer chances of “bunching” where a sizeable portion of the total transport fleet has aged and the cost of replacing or even refurbishing so many aircraft becomes prohibitive. The perils of delayed decision making are starkly highlighted when an old aircraft crashes, often with attendant large loss of life.
However, the way in which the IAF’s strategic transport fleet was brought to its current happy state within a short period is edifying. It was in 2008 that a $962 million contract was signed with the US Government to purchase six C-130J turboprop aircraft. These planes of 19-tonne payload capacity are the C-130J-30 version, customised for special operations. Hence it would be unwise to use them for routine transport tasks and the IAF is not inclined to do so. Although one of the original six was lost in an accident in March 2014 and one was damaged in February this year, Lockheed Martin will deliver another batch of six aircraft in 2017 under a $1.01-billion deal signed in 2013. They will equip the new 87 Squadron and be permanently located at Panagarh in West Bengal, renamed Air Force Station Arjan Singh. Two C-130J aircraft from the Hindon-based 77 Squadron Veiled Vipers already operate from Panagarh. The government has also cleared the replacement of the C-130J lost in the accident. Thus the IAF will have 12 of these evergreen aircraft on strength within the next few months.
In 2011, a major $4.1-billion deal for the purchase of 10 Boeing C-17 strategic airlift aircraft was signed with the US Government. These 74.8-tonne payload capacity jets are based at Hindon and are operated by 81 Squadron Skylords. The IAF would have preferred to buy another six but timely government action was not forthcoming and C-17 production ceased in November 2015. The last available C-17 is being acquired to take the strength to 11.
Before the C-17, the IAF’s strategic-lift capability depended entirely on the 43-tonne payload capacity Il-76MD’s. However, its serviceability had plummeted due to lack of spares and maintenance was becoming a nightmare. Finally, in October 2015, upgrade of the Il-76 fleet and six Il-78 tanker aircraft was sanctioned at a cost of Rs 4,250 crore. The upgrade is likely to include new engines and advanced avionics to extend the service life by 20 years, that is till at least 2035.
The IAF was also keen to purchase six Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft; but the tender was cancelled in August 2016, for the second time. The MRTT is a flight refuelling aircraft (FRA) but its sterling qualities as a transporter would make it a valuable addition to the strategic airlift capability of the IAF. Apart from 111 tonnes of fuel in its wings, it has an impressive 45-tonne payload capacity or 300 fully-equipped troops. The MRTT tender was apparently scrapped because the government plans to make a direct strategic purchase.
With the An-32 fleet experiencing low serviceability for many years, the IAF roped in some private manufacturers for indigenisation of mechanical and electronic items. Simultaneously a major revamp of the fleet was initiated. The IAF being the first customer of the An-32, the revamp of the fleet too should have been a smooth affair. In 2009, a $400-million contract was signed with Ukraine’s Ukrspetsexport Corporation to upgrade 105 An-32s to An-32RE standard. The upgrade includes advanced avionics, cockpit modification and reduction in noise and vibration levels. The payload capacity has also been enhanced from 6.7 tonnes to 7.5 tonnes. The first 40 aircraft were to be upgraded in Ukraine and the project began smoothly. However, in the wake of the conflict with Ukraine, Russia halted supplies of upgraded avionics and other spares to Ukraine. Finally, upgrade of the first lot of 40 aircraft was completed. However, upgrade of the remaining 65 aircraft that was to be undertaken by the IAF’s No. 1 Base Repair Depot (BRD) in Kanpur with Ukrainian assistance and completed by March 2017, is reportedly still dragging on. This upgrade should keep the An-32RE flying till at least 2035.
One type that is long obsolete is the HAL HS-748 Avro. In May 2015 the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) gave much-delayed approval to the Airbus Defence & Space C295 as its replacement. The IAF is to get 56 of the new improved C295W version with winglets and more powerful engines and the first 16 aircraft will be procured in fly-away condition. The remaining 40 are to be jointly produced in Hyderabad within eight years by Airbus Defence & Space in collaboration with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL). This is a big moment for India’s private aerospace industry because for the first time, HAL will not be involved in the production of a military aircraft in the country.
By August 2016, the C295W had successfully completed the necessary evaluation trials and contract negotiations are set to begin. However, it could be some time before the deal is approved by the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and the contract finally signed.
Despite efforts dating back to 2007, the proposed Il-214 multi-role transport aircraft (MTA) has stalled. It was to be jointly developed by the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) of Russia and HAL. The Il-214, planned as future replacement to the An-32RE, has a payload capacity of 15-20 tonnes and a range of 2,500 km to 2,700 km. However, serious differences cropped up over the power plant. UAC wanted the aircraft to be powered by two Russianmade Aviadvigatel PD-14M turbofan engines, but the IAF pitched for a better engine with full authority digital engine control (FADEC). The IAF was also deeply disillusioned by the problems it is facing with the PD-14M engine’s predecessor, the Aviadvigatel PS-90-76 turbofan fitted on the Il-76MD. Overall the proposal did not meet some crucial Air Staff Qualitative requirements and, consequently, only the last rites remain to be performed.
Ukraine is reportedly trying to profit from the impasse by offering the An-132 that it is developing with some other countries. The An-132 has a payload capacity of 9.2 tonnes. It is powered by Pratt & Whitney’s PW150A turboprop engines which come with FADEC and consume 25 per cent to 40 per cent less fuel than An-32 engines. However, the IAF’s recent experience with Ukraine has been far from satisfactory due to the non-availability of critically needed components for the An-32 upgrade.
Meanwhile HAL is making yet another attempt to develop an indigenous regional transport aircraft (RTA) and has issued a request for information (RFI) regarding the manufacture of a 50- to 80-seat twin-engine turbofan or turboprop dual-role regional aircraft. Apart from civilian roles it must be capable of being modified for military roles including transport, maritime surveillance and electronic intelligence gathering. Private sector Reliance Defence Limited also hopes to enter the military transport aircraft sector in collaboration with a foreign manufacturer like Ukraine’s Antonov and jointly bid for HAL’s MTA programme if it should be restarted. If these efforts succeed, the production plant will be located at India’s first integrated Aerospace Park at Mihan, Nagpur.
“Is the glass half empty or half full?” one might ask about the state of the IAF transport fleet. While the strategic end is undoubtedly comfortable, the uncertain progress of efforts to revamp the tactical segment gives rise to some disquiet. The An-32 upgrade is still not completed and it is likely that the wait for the C295W and a possible new MTA will continue as they are pushed back in the replacement queue by a cash-strapped government that would naturally accord priority to critically needed combat jets.